There’s an old rail control tower on 2nd Street SW, a few blocks from where CSX is rebuilding the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, and CSX has agreed to do major work on the tower as part of the rail project. Could it become a museum or a bar? Could someone live there? There are great possibilities, but also unique challenges.
The Control Point Virginia Tower, which sits at 2nd Street and Virginia Avenue SW next to the railroad tracks that take VRE and Amtrak passengers between Union Station and CSX’s rails that run along the east coast. It’s an interlocking tower, which is where a leverman used to manually switch which railroad tracks a train was using.
The Virginia Tower was built between 1904 and 1906 along with the First Street Tunnel, and around the same time as seven other such towers in Washington, DC.
Though a marvel of the late 19th century, by the 1930’s CP towers started to be replaced by centralized traffic control from remote control centers. By the late 1980’s almost all such towers were closed.
Of those eight DC towers, only Virginia and “K”, so named because it is just south of K Street on the approach to Union Station, still stand. CSX stopped using the Virginia Tower in 1989, and according to a 2007 article in Trains magazine, there were plans at the time to demolish it (which is what the agency did with the Anacostia Tower in 2008).
CSX is fixing up the Virginia Tower on the outside…
The Virginia Tower, however, has dodged the wrecking ball, and under the terms of the 2015 Memorandum of Agreement for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel project, CSX has agreed to preserve the tower.
Moreover, the agency has filed the necessary paperwork to add the tower to the National Register of Historic Places and the DC Inventory of Historic Sites, and it has agreed to rehabilitate the tower.
The rehabilitation will improve the appearance, repair the structure and provide added security. CSX will remove all exterior additions that are no longer needed such as antennas, steel window mesh, utility connections, and cabinets, along with the graffiti and cover-up paint. The agency will repair, replace or restore all of the floors, roof, windows, doors, and walls. Finally, CSX will add security features such as fencing, gates, and cameras.
...the inside is a different story, but think of the possibilities
The plan is to only rehabilitate the exterior of the tower and leave the interior alone. According to CSX the tower “will remain an active building to support CSX operations” as it “is still a vital part of the railroad infrastructure.”
It’s hard to see how that’s the case since CSX was planning to demolish it only nine years ago. Interlocking towers such as this one have been reused at other sites, but almost exclusively as small railroad museums. And while there are several serious and likely insurmountable barriers to any adaptive reuse— CSX resistance, the location between an active railroad track and a secure congressional office building, and its unusual size and location— below are some ideas for what could be done with it if those barriers weren’t there.
As I mentioned above, other such towers have been turned into museums or rail fan club houses. A museum run by volunteers with infrequent tours could better address security concerns by leaving it closed and locked at most times. The museum in Bradford, Ohio, for example, is only open six hours a week for nine months of the year.
Restaurant or bar
The building itself wouldn’t hold many patrons, but the courtyard could support an outdoor beer garden like the Brig at 8th and L SE. The building could could serve as a kitchen and storage. The idea is not totally crazy. K Tower, the other remaining interlocking tower in DC, is still used by Amtrak. According to one source it is the only such tower in use south of Philadelphia, but in the 2012 Union Station Master Plan, Amtrak envisioned turning it into restaurant or bar.
The reconstructed K Tower as a destination bar/restaurant in the air rights development. Image from Akridge/SBA.
It would be the most unique hotel in DC, but the tower could be turned into a small, rustic rental similar to what the C&O Canal has done with its lockhouses as part of its Canal Quarters program. It would be cramped, but you can’t beat the steps-from-the-Mall location (assuming you can sleep through train noise). Maybe the Canal Trust would even manage it for a cut of the profits.
Before the Canal Quarters rental program, the C&O Canal park attempted to lease its Lockhouses. Micro-units are the hot thing in real estate, and this cozy condominium might be a step up for a Congressmember currently sleeping in her office. It’s only a three block walk to the Rayburn Building. Perhaps it could even become the Official Residence of the Speaker of the House?